The Bridge: On Privilege, Reproductive Justice, and Art

4 Oct

A guest post by Megan Smith, a phone counselor at the Women’s Medical Fund and author of the play Waiting Room.

I have worked at an abortion fund for two years. Like many young, white, college-educated feminists, I’ve struggled with how my identity impacts my work in reproductive health. I’ve had to reconcile my privilege with its effects.

I have come to acknowledge the differences (and similarities) between my clients and myself.  More than that, I have come to embrace my opportunities and to utilize them to help other women.

That’s not to say that I’m completely comfortable with my advantages.

I became more aware of the distance between my clients and myself when I started to develop my play. I wrote Waiting Room as a fundraiser for the abortion fund where I work. I wanted to help my organization, but more than that, I wanted to tell unheard stories and educate an audience.

Since working as a phone counselor, I’ve heard women speak the same words over and over and over again. They can’t tell anyone that they’re pregnant. Their families won’t understand why they don’t want to continue the pregnancy. They don’t have a way to pay for the abortion and they have no one willing to help them.

What has been more surprising is that these women aren’t aware of each other. While I have an overwhelming sense of the depth and multitude of these stories, my clients often feel isolated and alone.

I wanted to give these women a chance to tell their stories.

I began writing, but the more I wrote, the more questions started to arise. What right do I have to tell these stories? Will they mean as much coming from me instead of coming directly from the mouths of my clients?

Then I stumbled upon the play Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith.  The play is a series of monologues transcribed from interviews about the Crown Heights riots. In her introduction, Smith discusses her beliefs in the transformative power of theater. She writes:

“Who has the right to see what? Who has the right to say what? These questions have plagued the contemporary theater…If only a man can speak for a man, a woman for a woman, a Black person for all Black people, then we, once again, inhibit the spirit of theater, which lives in the bridge that makes all likely aspects seem connected. The bridge doesn’t make them the same, it merely displays how two unlikely aspects are related. These relationships of the unlikely, these connections of things that don’t fit together are crucial to the American theater and culture if theater and culture plan to help us to assemble our obvious differences.”

After reading this, I came to realize that my play is made up of my words as much as my clients’ words. This is what Smith calls “the bridge.” It means that I am connected to my clients and they are connected to me, though there is a distance between us. The bridge is complicated, long, and twisted. But without it, these stories would not have been told.

I, like Smith, believe in the transformative power of theater to engage with an audience in a visceral, personal way. By telling the stories of my clients, I hope to extend the bridge to more people, so that after they see the performances, they will then carry these stories with them. They will, in turn, tell the stories to more people. The bridge will be extended. And although it will be a long walk from one end to the other, we will be more connected than before.

Megan J. Smith is the author of Waiting Room. Waiting Room tells the stories of five women, each faced with an unwanted pregnancy but unable to afford an abortion. It first premiered at Bryn Mawr College in March 2010. Its second performance, directed by Christopher Melohn, will be on October 23rd at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and will benefit the Women In Need Fund. For more information, visit the Waiting Room on Facebook or the.waiting.room.sj@gmail.com.

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